Roseanne, Racism, and the Problem of False Dichotomies

EDITORIAL, 25 Jun 2018

#540 | Richard Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

Note: the ABC Network canceled the revived sit-com, “Roseanne,” after its eponymous star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a grossly racist insult about former Obama administration chief of staff Valerie Jarrett.  “Roseanne” was a comedic series about the adventures and mishaps of an American white working class family.

It is difficult to talk sensibly and accurately about the role of racism and xenophobia in Trumpland.  The latest sign of this is an article in The Nation by Edward Burmila, who writes that the Roseanne Barr affair gives the lie to media efforts to explain the socioeconomic basis for Donald Trump’s support among many white workers.

Roseanne is inseparable from this quest to find evidence that Trumpers are ultimately good, kindhearted people whose fears and economic insecurity are being exploited by a charlatan,” says Burmila.  “Journalists and researchers are now finding that the veneer of ‘economic anxiety’ among Trump supporters is built on a foundation of hate.”  In his view, the masses support far-right regimes like Trump’s because they are authoritarian racists, not because they are suffering economically or in any other way.

How should a sharp-eyed editor deal with this one-dimensional approach to a complex problem?  First, in large red letters, write in the margin the words FALSE DICHOTOMY.  People are not either racists and authoritarians or the victims of exploitation and insults; the problem is that they are both.

American working people have been taught for generations that when things go badly for them, they are expected to exonerate their social “betters” and blame their “inferiors.”  This means seeking consolation and justification in racial, nationalist, and religious solidarity rather than challenging a system dominated by billionaires and their political toadies.

As Burmila correctly asserts, many Americans are eager and willing to follow Donald Trump’s lead.  But this is not because their suffering and insecurity is a mere “veneer” disguising a “foundation of hate.”  Trump defeated Clinton by capturing six industrial and semi-industrial states that Obama won handily in 2012.  In all these states, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, job insecurity, and the social ills accompanying a depressed economy were major issues.

Still wielding the red pen, our editor should then write the query SOURCES? next to the author’s statement that “journalists and researchers” have discovered that Trump supporters are really racists and xenophobes rather than economic and social sufferers.  I have seen no studies that would support this peculiarly angry and despairing either/or.

Burmila is surely right to suggest that racism and xenophobia are implanted in American culture.  But his take on Roseanne ignores the fact that these feelings are learned responses to a social crisis – responses that the Democratic Party’s peculiarly classless brand of identity politics has done nothing to mitigate.  Hillary Clinton’s three-point response to the crisis – defend the status quo, raise the minimum wage, and diss the “deplorables” – virtually guaranteed the triumph of Trump’s ugly right-wing populism.

Learned responses can be unlearned, to be sure – but only if we find ways to help fellow-sufferers identify the real causes of their suffering.  Like the Roseanne show, Burmila’s approach stops way short of this goal.  You can’t call out the racists and xenophobes without also calling out the capitalist elite.

Rosa Luxemburg was right.  A century after her death, the choice that confronts us still is “Socialism or Barbarism.”

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Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.  His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts, was published by Routledge in 2017.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jun 2018.

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One Response to “Roseanne, Racism, and the Problem of False Dichotomies”

  1. Gary Corseri says:

    Professor Rubenstein’s article moves us in the right direction!

    Oops!… I didn’t mean “Right”-right. I mean Correct-right!

    One must be so careful with words these days! (Always a good idea, but especially now in this querulous age of half-truths, hidden meanings and innuendos.)

    I appreciate the professor’s red-pen approach–having been an editor and teacher/professor myself. One of the best things to teach from one’s academic seat of power or from the editor’s desk is the need for cogency, coherence and clarity.

    I do think the good professor is moving in the correct direction, but perhaps he might move even further.

    For example, from the first sentence, I’m aggrieved. I don’t think I’m living in “Trumpland.” Dr. Rubenstein is already poisoning the wells. In fact, in the words of the old song: “Don’t fence me in!” I live on planet earth in a country called the United States of America. That country and this planet have numerous deep-seated problems having to do with the human genome, and we have been trying to disentangle the noxious strands of xenophobia and cupidity for millennia.

    Concerning Edward Burmila’s reductio ad absurdum here:

    “Roseanne is inseparable from this quest to find evidence that Trumpers are ultimately good, kindhearted people whose fears and economic insecurity are being exploited by a charlatan,”

    Dr. Rubenstein clearly notes a FALSE DICHOTOMY. “People are not either racists and authoritarians or the victims of exploitation and insults; the problem is that they are both.”

    Unfortunately, that, too, is a FALSE DICHOTOMY–inherent in the “either-or” and rather simplistic way we have come to frame our arguments. Suppose we begin with the assumption that “people” run the gamut–from the ignorant to the wise. We are compound, composite beings. People may be both, they may be neither; they may be both sometimes, neither sometimes–and a whole lot more….

    For me, the best part of Dr. Rubenstein’s essay was in the penultimate paragraph:

    ” Learned responses can be unlearned, to be sure – but only if we find ways to help fellow-sufferers identify the real causes of their suffering. Like the Roseanne show, Burmila’s approach stops way short of this goal. You can’t call out the racists and xenophobes without also calling out the capitalist elite.”

    That’s moving smartly! Let’s get beyond catcalling and caterwauling and start to deal with our human, global problems.

    To elevate our discussions, let’s polish our verbiage, fine-tune our discussions.

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